Choose Your Own Demise: Final Destination at 15

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Jeffrey Reddick originally intended the spec screenplay for Final Destination to be an episode of The X-Files. This makes complete sense. The movie’s preoccupation with fatalism, psychic premonition and the unexplainable fits perfectly with the famous television series’ “spook story of the week” modus operandi. It wouldn’t be hard to slip Fox Mulder and Dana Scully into the narrative; arriving at McKinley High shortly after the crash of Flight 180, they’d be determined to understand just how in the hell a handful of survivors were warned about the disaster moments before it actually happened. However, the script being produced by New Line Studios as a feature film turned out to be a freeing improvement over the restrictive guidelines of prime time television. Because you just couldn’t have a young girl splattered by a bus on Network TV, after all. 

But I doubt Reddick would’ve been able to guess that his high concept murder show would go on to become an integral part of modern horror cinema’s fabric. Fifteen years later (yes — you are old — deal with it), the Final Destination pictures are still as popular as ever; to the point that it’s hard to understand why New Line ever stopped producing them every three years or so. $650+ million in worldwide box office alone proves that folks love watching their fellow man bite the big one in creative ways. All you need is a screenwriter and director able to dream up more grisly Rube Goldbergian set pieces, and a pretty cast willing to subject themselves to Death’s cruel, icy grasp. Voila. Final Destination 6 is in theaters and waiting to reap the dollars of nearly every teen looking for a quick date night horror fix.

However, none of this explains the why of the insane success behind the Final Destination series. Where movies like Saw and Hostel (and their other stupidly labeled “torture porn” ilk) tap into a War on Terror televised atrocity fascination (replicating the feel of post-Vietnam nasties like Last House on the Left), and slasher films often represent an overwhelming influx of Reagan Era Conservative Values, Final Destination seems to be tapping into something timeless and primordial. For we all fear death, yet are drawn like flies to car crashes and other horrific accidents that claim life in an instant. In essence, the Final Destination pictures are candy-coated pop distillations of the black beguilement that lives inside every human being: a want to touch the face of Death Itself while still being able to mutter “at least it wasn’t me” from a very safe distance.

FinalD1FINAL DESTINATION [2000] (d. James Wong, w. Glen Morgan, James Wong & Jeffrey Reddick)

Death’s Cheated Design: Plane Crash

Best Demise: Bus Stop Jackson Pollock

“It was all the more tragic in that they were young.” John Larroquette famously intoned the opening crawl to Texas Chain Saw Massacre, setting the scene for an idyllic summer day that would be marred by senseless violence. Tobe Hooper’s seminal masterpiece of existential dread explored just how unfeeling death was, especially when encountered by the youngest, brightest members of our society. It was a post-Flower Power manifestation of a generation’s fears, as all were terrified that they or someone they loved were going to be snatched up by the Vietnam draft.

In a weird way, Final Destination updates these themes for a post-Bill Clinton collection of suburbanites; their insular, collective consciousness alerted to the Grim Reaper’s presence only after it’s too late to really do anything about it. Your parents may provide all of the things you need in order to lead a cushy existence, but mortality is a guarantee, and you cannot do a thing to stop it once it comes for you.

While this may sound incredibly oppressive, the genius of X-Files scribes James Wong and Glen Morgan’s initial dance with death is that it sneakily packages rather weighty themes inside of a cinematic compendium that is in love with its suspense forefathers. From the conspicuous cinephile character names (Hitchcock, Val Lewton) to the elaborately brutal set pieces, the first Final Destination relishes the craft that goes into creating a great horror film (as it is essentially an immaculately arranged sequence of set-ups and pay-offs).

It certainly doesn’t hurt that they cast the picture with a throng of up-and-coming WB-ready stars (Devon Sawa, Kerr Smith, Ali Larter, Seann William Scott); the only decision that ages the picture for anybody who lived through Dawson’s Creek. The rest of Final Destination has stood the test of time, remaining as ruthlessly entertaining as it was when it first hit pre-9/11 theaters. Sadly, the first installment would be the last time that the movies actually had anything on their mind beyond providing a gore-splattered roller coaster ride (until the fifth film would resurrect the series’ subtext, at least). But how many other horror pictures can claim to have captured an entire generation’s all-consuming anxieties while simultaneously forcing its audience to relish the experience? Final Destination is a flat-out classic because it not only literalizes what we’re too afraid to share with one another, but also dares to make said dreadful manifestations one hell of a good time at the movies.

FinalD2bFINAL DESTINATION 2 [2003] (d. David R. Ellis, w. J. Mackye Gruber & Eric Bress)

Death’s Cheated Design: Multi-Car Pile Up

Best Demise: Plate Glass Bug Crush

Sylvia Plath once wrote, “Dying is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well.” This nihilistic slice of self-love could be applied wholesale to David R. Ellis’ first sequel Final Destination sequel. No longer satisfied to make some sort of grand statement about the existential threat of fatality, Ellis decides to reconfigure Jeffrey Reddick’s original high concept premise into possibly the most inventive slasher picture ever made. Only instead of presenting a new movie maniac à la Jason Voorhees or Freddy Kreuger, the killer here is literally named Death Itself during the film’s opening credits. The staples of the genre (horny teens who use drugs, a soothsayer, the Final Girl) are all present; it’s just the hulking beast that’s missing. But by refusing to restrict the picture’s instrument of casualty to a mere flesh suit, Ellis and company truly turn death into an art even John Creasy could admire.

Sweetening the deal for fans is the fact that Ellis puts his skills as an almost uncannily talented second unit action director to extraordinary use. Most forget that Ellis (may he now rest in peace) played an integral part in both the massive freeway chase in the middle of The Matrix Reloaded and the cannon battles in Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Here, he stages a spectacularly gory car wreck. Logs are launched through police officers’ faces. A tractor-trailer plows through an SUV, and a man is burned to death inside his fiery tomb of a car. It’s bloody, pitiless material, but also acts as a jumping off point for Ellis (along with screenwriters J. Mackye Gruber & Eric Bress) to expand on the mythos of the first film. The rules (that death, once cheated, follows a pattern in order to claim those who escaped) are broadened and subverted as soon as Tony Todd’s enigmatic mortician and Ali Later’s ludicrously named lone survivor Clear Rivers reappear. Chaos then reigns supreme, as the movie is having a ball offing those who scoff at the unseen Reaper. In all honesty, Final Destination 2 might actually be superior to its prototype, as it throws caution to the wind and becomes the abstract slasher picture you never knew you needed in your life.

MCDFIDE EC051FINAL DESTINATION 3 [2006] (d. James Wong, w. Glen Morgan & James Wong)

Death’s Cheated Design: Roller Coaster Mishap

Best Demise: Car Engine Fan Crew Cut

Half of the fun of the best amusement park rides is the fact that you can die at any moment. Why else would we even get on to roller coasters? Twisting and turning at over eighty miles an hour before flipping upside down, all that stands between the rider and a cart into the great beyond is usually a flimsy seatbelt or lap bar that always seems to shift just enough to make you feel insecure. So it only makes sense that the Final Destination series would make a stop at a carnival, where massive death-defying contraptions are just waiting to welcome a mob of teens (including Mary Elizabeth Winstead) into their portal of elemental physics. Final Destination 3 is where all subtext and subversion is stripped away from the series completely, leaving only the ride. Sure, it’s a somewhat vapid horror exercise in mindless slaughter, but returning creators James Wong and Glen Morgan understand the logic behind “gaper delays”. You’re here to see how the coaster careened off tracks, killing everyone in the cars.

And what a hilarious disaster this all is. In relieving themselves of any kind of pretension, Wong and Morgan completely embrace the more exploitive elements of the horror genre. Wanna see two topless silicone-enhanced “teens” get burned alive in a tanning bed while jamming out to “Love Roller Coaster”? How about an All-American sports star getting his head crushed by a weight bench? Final Destination 3 is a remorseless Deathapalooza. All the while, nobody seems to want to ask just how all these psychic, disaster-prone teens made it into the same high school. Maybe that’s the subtext of this commercial capitalization on morbid curiosity. We’re all too preoccupied with our own narratives to stop and take a look at the “whys” of the weird nature of the Grim Reaper. Luckily, this second sequel ends with a disaster that tops the inciting amusement park slaughter ten-fold, adding a new element to the formula (bookended calamities) and proves that most of these characters are too naïve (or stupid) to heed the warnings all around them. The next stop is the end of the line. Get off while you still can.

FinalD4PoolTHE FINAL DESTINATION [2009] (d. David R. Ellis, w. Eric Bress) 

Death’s Cheated Design: NASCAR Massacre

Best Demise: Pool Filter Weight Loss Program

When a movie starts off with a Shinedown track roaring over a NASCAR race, there’s a pretty good chance you’re in for a bumpy ride. Despite welcoming back the franchise’s best all-around director and letting Ellis prove with the opening set piece that he’s still the king of choreographed mass carnage, The Final Destination most definitely reeks of a “been there, done that” studio cash-in. That said, the movie’s shameless welcoming of “date movie” gimmickry (the 3D usage feels akin to the out and out huckster application in Friday the 13th Part III) is certainly something to be admired. The Final Destination never misses a moment to pack in another nu-metal ear-splitter, but it gets in and out and delivers a solid heap of splatter nonsense in its brisk 81 minutes.

Another admirable quality in this inarguable nadir of the series is the fact that Ellis and screenwriter Eric Bress embrace the franchise’s goofy gallows humor. Setting the movie at a literal car crash only reinforces how self-aware everyone involved in the creative process had become. When a tow truck drags a racist, murderous redneck to his demise while blaring War’s “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” (all while his intended African American target watches him go), it’s possibly the perfect representation of how The Final Destination was artistically approached. However, even the decision to return to having the protagonist be a Final Boy (as was Jeffrey Reddick’s initial intention with the first film’s male “hero”) instead of the previous two sequels’ traditional ultimate female victims feels like a flailing studio note; a suit trying to recapture what had already raked in millions of dollars. The Final Destination is something of a slog, but if you’re able to simply accept the movie for what it is (an uninspired, if somewhat fun, “ride” of a movie), you might be able to make it through this portion of the cinematic death march with a smile on your face.

FinalD5FINAL DESTINATION 5 [2011] (d. Steven Quale, w. Eric Heisserer)

Death’s Cheated Design: Suspension Bridge Bottom Out

Best Demise: Extreme Kerri Strug

You rarely expect the fifth entry in any series to completely reinvigorate the franchise, but Final Destination 5 not only steps up its game over the previous two installments, it vies for being the very best movie of them all. By casting a crew of incredibly talented comedic actors (including Dave Koechner and PJ Byrne, a/k/a “Rugrat” from Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street), first-time narrative feature director Steven Quale (Aliens of the Deep) announces from the start that this movie isn’t going to be playing it completely straight. Only instead of having his picture wink at you the entire time, subverting its own formula and attempting a meta-textual commentary, Final Destination 5 instead sticks pretty close to the series script. The main difference is that it lets its characters be organically funny within the context of a horror film; a high-wire balancing act that feels tougher to pull off than it probably should be.  Topping it all off, Quale almost bests the car crash from FD2 with a suspension bridge collapse that contains vertigo-inducing scope unlike anything in the rest of the franchise.

Moving the story on from McKinley High is also a good choice made by screenwriter Eric Heisserer. Final Destination 5 owns a much more “grown up” feel, as we’re now out in the business world with these doomed souls, navigating both the blue collar corridors of a factory and the grey, sterile cubicles of Corporate America. No longer is the series infatuated with killing off teens, deciding to claim those who are simply attempting to figure out what the next leap in their lives should be (the main character’s moral dilemma is choosing between a risky chef position in Paris and keeping his safety net desk jockey status quo). What the movie seems to be arguing is that complacency is not an option, as the cold scythe could come calling at any moment.

But while the Reaper has moved on to claiming those facing a quarter-life crisis, the franchise decides that sticking to its already established rules is just as boring as pushing pencils for your entire existence. In order to keep their lives, these new would-be victims must satisfy Death by offering Him a replacement soul. It’s a nifty wrinkle that shows the series had no interest in sitting still. It’s actually somewhat surprising that a sixth Final Destination has yet to be green-lit, as the fifth film fully demonstrates that a minor twist on an otherwise set in stone method is all it takes to keep the movies engaging. The rest is simple – keep killing off beautiful people in imaginative ways and watch the money roll in. But if there never is another FD picture, we can be satisfied by the elliptical nature of the fifth’s finale. Quale closes the loop, proving once again that death is an inescapable cycle.

Jacob Knight is an Austin, Texas based film writer who moonlights as a clerk at Vulcan Video, one of the last great independent video stores in the US. You can find find him on Twitter @JacobQKnight.

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Weekend: Jul. 25, 2019, Jul. 28, 2019

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